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David Christman, former Hofstra dean, dies at 75

David Christman, former dean of the New College

David Christman, former dean of the New College at Hofstra University, died Dec. 6, 2016. He's seen here on Feb. 15, 2002. Credit: Newsday / Ken Spencer

David Christman of Merrick, who over nearly four decades as a Hofstra University dean pushed the bounds of the traditional classroom, has died. He was 75.

His daughter, Trista Christman Goldstein of Syosset, said he died Dec. 6 at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside of respiratory failure after complications from throat cancer surgery two weeks earlier.

Appointed at age 28 in 1970 as dean of Hofstra’s now-defunct New College, Christman rejected a pedagogy of solely traditional academics, mandatory core courses or even a requirement to declare a major. Instead, students signed “contracts” outlining expectations, a mix of independent study, team teaching, interdisciplinary coursework, overseas programs and classes like “Eugene O’Neill and Greek Drama.”

“There’s a rabbinical tradition that there is education for society and education for oneself. I would like to think New College gets them closer together than most institutions have,” the cowboy-boot-wearing jazz and opera fan told Newsday in 1975.

He’d hang out with undergrads, attend their plays and join their football games on the quad. He hated disciplining students, outsourcing the task to a deputy.

“Why does Socrates love youth?” is how he’d often open classes, borrowing from the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, according to a 2002 Newsday article. “The answer is because they have the breadth of eternity.”

The college wasn’t without critics, who considered it too easy, needlessly dismissive of convention — new for the sake of just being new and a den of ’60s rebellion.

But, recalled Elaine Anton-Lotruglio, a Hofstra grad who worked under Christman as a top aide, “He always said that you must allow for chaos in order to allow for creativity.”

The presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who once taught at Hofstra, credited him with helping persuade campus higher-ups to approve his American Odyssey course, which packed students into a sleeper bus to learn about the United States by traveling cross-country and visiting historic sites.

“He was a genius at making the Hofstra campus wider than Uniondale, New York,” said Brinkley, who turned the adventure into the 1993 book “The Majic Bus.”

The university’s elite had been reluctant at first to appoint him to full dean, Newsday reported, and he served as acting dean until getting the permanent position.

Over the years, he also taught art history, architecture, archaeology, English and directed Hofstra’s art museum.

About a decade ago, New College was swallowed by Hofstra’s main liberal arts school amid declining enrollment.

David Carl Christman was born Jan. 29, 1941, to Arthur Christman, a car salesman, and the former Mildred Grimm, a housewife. He grew up in Floral Park, became a Boy Scout, graduated from Sewanhaka High School, Hofstra and Columbia for grad school, working at various jobs such as jazz-club waiter and crossing guard. He lived in New Hyde Park, Garden City and Merrick.

He married the former Maria Rico in 1962; they were together until her death in 1987.

In addition to Christman Goldstein, he is survived by his longtime partner, Mary Wakeford of Malverne, and a granddaughter.

A private memorial is set for Jan. 28. His remains were cremated.

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